Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Andrew Bujalski: Computer Chess, Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax

Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess is available for purchase via iTunes, and will be available this week on other services (October 4 on Amazon Instant Video, for example).

[Edit November 7, 2013: Computer Chess is now available on Netflix Watch Instantly]

I'm quite a fan of his 2005 film, Mutual Appreciation, which many people associate with the so-called "mumblecore" movement/genre/group of films and filmmakers.  One thing that distinguished Mutual Appreciation from other mumblecore films was that it was shot on film rather than digital video, which gave it a texture more akin to an early Cassavettes film.  It is somewhat ironic that for his move to video, Bujalski went in the opposite direction of the latest digital camera and instead shot Computer Chess on old-school video cameras not unlike those that were around at the time the film takes place, the 1980s.  Beyond being just a gimmick, the technical decision creates some interesting stylistic obstacles and challenges, most of which fit well with the deadpan observational humor of the film.

Aside from one false step, an artsy flourish in color near the end, Bujalski commits himself to the technical and conceptual minimalism of observing a computer chess tournament, with most scenes taking place in a conference room and individual hotel rooms.  The film compensates for its lack of spectacle with wry humor about a complicated network of professional rivalries and relationships hampered by awkward social skills. A mix of professional and non-professional actors produces an interesting clash of tones in some scenes which again works well with this particular milieu.  Bujalski is probably more interesting in terms of the environment he creates for the actors to find their way through the scenes, rather than in terms of visual style.  Still, pulling off a period piece which is very dependent on genuine technological artifacts from the era on an independent budget is quite impressive.

Bujalski's films have been available on Netflix Instant View at various times, but they are not there at the moment.  So for this post, I'm experimenting with suggesting three films that are available on three different services, at various prices.  Of course, you could play the waiting game and see if they appear on subscription services again.

Synopses and images from The Movie Database

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2013, 91 minutes)

A 1980s-set story centered around a man vs. machine chess tournament.

Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2005, 109 minutes) 

Alan is a musician who leaves a busted-up band for New York, and a new musical voyage. He tries to stay focused and fends off all manner of distractions, including the attraction to his good friend's girlfriend.

Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2009, 100 minutes)

Beeswax revolves around the personal and professional entanglements of twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren – played by extraordinary newcomers Tilly and Maggie Hatcher – living in Austin, Texas. Jeannie co-owns a vintage clothing store with Amanda, a semi-estranged friend who she fears is trying to end their partnership. Lauren leads a looser, less tethered existence and is considering getting out of the country altogether. When Jeannie receives an email from Amanda threatening a lawsuit, she calls her law student ex-boyfriend Merrill for help. Eager for distraction from his own problems, he begins helping the sisters with theirs. Imbued with an innate charm, Beeswax is a story about families, friends, lovers and those awkward moments that bring all of them together.

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